‘Understand that friends come and go, but for a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, for the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.’ Baz Luhrmann
When I was at university, it often felt as though I was living in a real life version of Friends: my room constantly overflowed with a po-faced collection of new best mates, one night stands that continued to linger and people who got on my nerves, but who I didn’t have the heart to kick out. It was always rammed, the kettle was constantly boiling and for some strange reason, I always seemed to be naked. I don’t know why, but I was. All we seemed to do was laugh and think that we were brilliant. Looking back, we were probably archetypal irritating students – this was certainly an opinion that my Dad seemed to hold dear to his heart.
I’d resentfully land back in Nottingham for the summer and continue to bore anyone who would listen about my exciting tales of studentdom with my fabulous, shiny, all singing, all dancing collection of zany comrades. Dad would question these friendships with a sneer and I’d be enraged by his dismissal and criticism of amazing characters that he’d never met. After storming off to my room after one particular row, Dad followed me and apologised, which was a first (and last, come to think of it). As he gave me his ‘Jerry Springer’s Final Thought’ post-mortem of our disagreement, he imparted possibly the most simple, yet profound thing that I have ever heard – that if you can get through life with just a handful of proper, 24/7/365 friends… friends who will never dump on you, will always be there for you and who simply want the very best for you, then you’re doing well. A handful, I thought, exasperatedly. I’ve got, like, fifty of them. I said this to Dad and instead of ringing the bell for round two, he smiled wearily, got up in silence and then ventured back downstairs.
On September the 8th 2000, I found out who my friends were. This was the day that I lost my dear, sweet, beautiful mother and it transpired that Dad was right after all. The league of friends evaporated overnight as the phone stubbornly refused to ring. I was left with the trinity of friends who I now know I have been blessed with. Without them I don’t know how I would have coped. Looking back, losing (what I now consider to be) the dead wood was a hard lesson, but a valuable one. Today I would say that my friends’ well being is of greater import than my own. I can afford to feel this because I know that whatever happens, they will never screw me over. Ever. Step forward my oldest friend in the whole, wide world. Neil Kendrick Heath. Neil, Neil, Orange Peel. Noddle. Heathy. Kunt-Monkey. I could go on with the various nicknames for one of the most important people in my life, but I’d rather get onto the good stuff.
When we first met, it’s true to say that we didn’t particularly like each other. Neil must have been six or seven, me eight or nine? There was a game of football on the park and it transpired that as Neil was the owner of the ball, permission had to be obtained from him if you wanted to play. ‘Get lost,’ the chubby little bastard said, although in fairness I was much porkier and my hair looked worse – kind of like a mix between Michael Jackson in the seventies, (when he was black) and The Beatles in the sixties (before they grew it and went all hippy-hippy convoy). After that point, we kept our distance – I don’t think that this was intentional, but we were in different years at school and had different friends (Neil: lads his own age to play football with, me: various bars of chocolate.)
The catalyst that provided the platform for our friendship came when Neil got into a fight on the school bus one day. The rest of the bus seemed to be rooting for his opponent, a smug kid Ashley whose throat was just crying out to be throttled. After much bag shoving, scowling, effing and jeffing and grabbing, I remember shouting, ‘Smack him, Neil!’ And he did. We exchanged an unsure glance: Neil shrugged his shoulders and then placed the sweetest, most perfect right hook that connected splendidly with the wispy chin of his opponent. Ashley went down (quicker than his mother), the crowd switched their allegiances and Neil was the hero until we all got off at the shop and ran home to get our tea. From that point onwards we began to talk – at youth club, on the bus and whilst in many ways we’ve always been quite the opposite of each other, there’s a huge connection between us. We would talk about stuff – about problems. Our conversations, in retrospect, were always much more sophisticated than that of our peers.
One day, we realised that we had another thing in common – a burning love and passion for men. Men who play in the red strip at the City Ground, that is. Neil ain’t no bender. You should see him attempt to dance and his music collection is upsettingly bereft of anything ironically happy. (That said, I’ve been working on him and have factored in a few Madge albums over the years. I win on that score.) And that’s how our friendship crystallised and developed – through regular trips to the City Ground to see our beloved Nottingham Forest FC. Even though we’re officially rubbish these days, at the time we were one of the best sides in the country… until the day Neil and I arrived at the club and purchased our season tickets. By the end of that campaign, we had been relegated and Neil stood by and laughed as I screamed, thinking I was being crushed by the crowd on the last day of the season. (I wasn’t, I was being dramatic.) I’m now looking at a photo that was taken that very day, just moments before we left to get the bus into Nottingham. I’m in a blue away strip, Neil in the traditional red of home (see, opposites again), and we’re both wearing a red and white afro fright wigs. Like my brother said at the time, we look like a pair of twats. Happy twats though. I love that photo.
There have been times that we’ve drifted but there’s always the knowledge that no matter how far we ever become polarised, the bond is unbreakable and it’s always there. As I’ve mentioned, we’re chalk and cheese. I’m gobby and Neil is more reserved, Neil is married to his beautiful wife and together they have already laid the foundations of an amazing future. I’m a gay boy that can’t quite see past next Friday night and if I’ll be amazed if I’m settled or have a mortgage in the next five, even ten years. Neil will tell me about a fantastic new band who I’ve never heard of (usually with good reason – skinny, tone-deaf, soap dodgers in tight, piss-stained jeans who sing about cheerful stuff like suicide and play guitar far too much), whereas I’ll foam at the mouth about the latest CD I’ve bought. I swear that I can actually hear Neil’s heart break when I enlighten him to the fact that the CD in question is something like Girls Aloud’s Greatest (cough) Hits. Politically we’ve had some hum-dingers of rows over the years, but I think we kind of sing from the same hymn sheet these days. That said, Neil has an enviable decency about him. He’ll feel passionate about something randomly important, like Coca Cola’s supply of weaponary in Africa causing untold deaths… He emailed me one day and asked me not to buy any more Coca Cola as he thought that by doing so, it was fundamentally akin to assisting murder. At the time, I’d just cracked open a can of Diet Coke and so emailed back asking if my actions would only result in say, a broken arm, or a slap around the face, what with it not being full fat cola that I was ingesting. We both saw the funny side and I think that’s a huge constituent of the emotional glue that binds us. We do have similar senses of humour and one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been paid is when, whilst being introduced as best man at his wedding – one of the most beautiful, happy and proudest days of my life – he told the room that I was the funniest person he knew of. Many would disagree, but we do have an uncanny knack of being able to make each other howl, a by-product of growing up together and getting through the shit that life throws at you. When I thought I was constantly terminally ill as a teenager with cancer of the hair or left eyebrow, or something equally ridiculous, Neil would listen and talk me through it, as I did with him when he worried that an innocent cut on his arm could have been a result of an alien abduction, or when he thought that a cheeky wank in the bath may result in the inadvertent impregnation of his female family members. There has been the proper stuff too: we’ve both lost our Mams, we’ve both been dealt what seems like quite a lot of heartache for our ages (football team notwithstanding), and every time something has gone belly up for one of us, the other one is there, instantly, no questions asked. Our friendship is a huge source of comfort and happiness for me. And for Neil, too. Or at least it better be!
Above any negativity that we’ve seen each other through, there’s been so much laughter and happiness… As kids, we shared holidays together and fought over Super Mario Cart. He threw up out of the window on one trip home from Ingoldmells and after he'd finished I pointed out the go-faster sick stripes on the window and we vibrated with laughter all the way back . I irritated the poor bastard relentlessly by my inability to stop singing, ‘She woooore… Bluuue! Vel-veeet!’ for the whole of a summer but he got his own back when I was wrenched off a kneel board waterski thing. It was bad enough that I had to wear an industrial sized wetsuit (zeppelin in a condom, anyone?), but as we turned a corner I began to sink. And then from nowhere there was a jolt and I clung on to the pully-bar and spent the next five minutes skimming like a stone over the lake. I’ve never seen him laugh so much. I thought he was going to follow through.
We constantly visited each other throughout university – Neil was in Northants, I was in Hertfordshire. Without realising, he introduced me to my first boyfriend. So when my Dad eventually finds out that his youngest son plays on Team Batty, I intend on pointing the pink finger queenily at Neil… not that it would change his opinion of Neil. You see, he is one of the few friends I have that my Dad likes, even loves, I dare say. And there is no higher compliment than getting the seal of approval from that mad old bastard.
Neil, you’re my brother, my wannabe fag hag, my hero, my best friend. A talented artist, a brilliant listener, an inventive writer, tremendous company. You’re one of God’s better people.
If you ever leave my life, I’m gonna fucking kill myself. Be warned!
Happy birthday you fat old bitch.
All my (manly, heterosexual type) love,
Johnny Red Pants xx
PS. Don't just take my word for it, have a gander for yourself:
See. Told you.